Manolo says, one of the Manolo’s internet friends has asked him the question.
I’m working on a small academic paper about fashion, for presenting at the Association of Private Enterprise in Education (APEE) meeting this coming April. Virginia Postrel, who is both your friend and mine, has told me that you’re quite nice and quite classical liberal in your inclinations, so I wondered if I might ask you if you have a brief comment or two on the perennial fashion trend of extremely costly clothing made to look like garbage.
I am thinking, for example, of the Vivienne Westwood Fall 2010 Menswear collection:
And the Louis Vuitton trashbag purse:
There’s something very interesting going on here with ideas of wealth, price, value, appearance…
At any rate, if you have time to think about it a little, I’d love to know what thoughts you have.
All the best,
Briefly laying aside the matters economic, what is going on here is what the French writer Émile Augier called La nostalgie de la boue, or the “longing for the mud”.
It is the commonplace notion that the primitive, the well-worn and tattered, even the debased are superior in essence to the refined and civilized.
This idea and emotion, as far as the Manolo knows, has been present in all societies and all places, undoubtedly since the humans first left the trees, and then longed to build the treehouse in which they could retreat on the weekends to express their inner australopithecus.
In the other words, “Keepin it real, yo.”
And, as fashion is the art form reflective of society and its traumas, and as it is also the business, it is only natural that the fashion houses would eagerly seek to reflect upon and profit from this universal human desire.
Of the course, the fashionistas, with the few notable exceptions, are not the deep thinkers, and so you will not find complex thoughts expressed about this idea in regards to society, history and authenticity, only variations of the phrase “I think it looks cool”.
And now, let us mock them…
And, lest you think such mockery unwarranted…the Manolo gives you the Brother Sharp.
But Mr Cheng’s life changed dramatically after an amateur photographer posted pictures of him walking the streets onto the Chinese internet.
His prominent cheekbones and bohemian clothes quickly won him a legion of fans who called him “China’s Sexiest Tramp” and, most often, “Brother Sharp”.
Meanwhile, offers have poured in for him to appear in advertisements and he even did a stint as a catwalk model in the southern city of Foshan.
And now that we have established that we universally long for the mud, especially when the people who are wallowing in it are photogenic, how can we make the money from it?
This is where the Manolo must take you back to Ur, by making the reference to the work of Thorstein Veblen, and his notions of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous waste.
Throughout the entire evolution of conspicuous expenditure, whether of goods or of services or human life, runs the obvious implication that in order to effectually mend the consumer’s good fame it must be an expenditure of superfluities. In order to be reputable it must be wasteful.
Thus, if one feels the desire to wallow, and yet must maintain or build one’s reputation for being the right sort of fashionable person, one must be prepared to spend serious cash on something whose price cannot be justified by utility alone.
The fashion houses and designers know this and profit from it.
The example of the Louis Vuitton trash bag that costs $1960 for what is essentially the wan joke is prima facie evidence. It is not attractive, nor does it appear to be well made, and yet the person who has purchased it makes the undeniable statement about her status, economic resources, and knowledgeable hipness.
And now, the Manolo asks you to consider one more item…
If it were real, would you carry it?